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Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Dingo
Unfairly judged?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Feral cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Rabbits
Perhaps not so adapted to Australia

Wombat
Keg of muscle


 

 

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Albert Tucker

Environmental problems in Australia

"We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land; they seemed to live off it " Tom Dystra

Defining an environmental problem is somewhat problematic because it relies on value judgements that are not necessarily shared in a multicultural society. For example, many environmental scientists want to return the ecosystem to how it was in 1788, which they see as a time before human alteration. Many Aboriginal groups don’t like the aim as it infers that they were animals before 1788. Furthermore, many Aboriginal groups who have had land title recognised, don’t like conceptions of pre-1788 Aboriginal environmentalism lacking an economic basis because such definitions are used to prevent Aborigines from economically developing their land today.

In another example of environmentalism being definned along value lines, many environmental scientists are concerned about the continued presence of trout in Australian alpine streams because they see it as a feral species. Fisherman; however, highly value the trout’s presence and they spend a significant amount of money trying to catch it. For this reason, trout are continually stocked. Likewise, some environmental scientists are concerned about the continued presence of koalas on Kangaroo Island because it was introduced by environmental scientists in the 1930s who were governed by a different ideology than those today. For tourism operators on Kangaroo Island; however, the koala is the star attraction for almost 200,000 eco-tourists each year.

In 2012, physicist John Reid commented on his time with environmental scientists where he noted that their approach to management was perhaps more moral than scientific. Specifically, he noted a tendency to kill certain animals on moral grounds and without consideration about whether it would lead to desirable outcomes. In his own words,

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions."

The desirability or otherwise of such programs is not a scientific question -- it is a value judgement, one about which an informed layman has just as much right to an opinion as a scientist or other expert." (1)

The view that eradication programs rarely considered the effects on the ecosystem was previously stated by Arko Lucieer, from the University of Tasmania::

"Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs...There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?" (2)

Basically, animals are killed because they are feral, not because they pose a threat to the ecosystem. Ironically, there is even a degree of confusion in regards to the definitions of native and feral that typically justify decisions to kill animals. For example, many Aboriginal groups don't consider the cat or dingo to be feral species. Instead, they just see them as part of the ecosystem and in the case of the dingo, some tribes see it as a sacred totem. Dingo expert Laurie Corbett also had a defintion of the dingo that was based on something other than history. Specifically, Corbett proposed taking the whole ecosystem's response to the animal into account when deciding if an animal is native or feral. In his own words:

“So what constitutes a native animal? It is simply one that lives in Australia and has ecological and/or cultural impact, regardless of taxa, birth site, race, language, length of time in Australia etc. Accordingly, the Dingo most certainly is a native Australian.” (3)

Critics, such as biologist Tim Low, have disputed the classification on semantic grounds. Low has expressed his concern that Corbett's classification system makes the words "feral" and "native" obsolete. In a sarcastic rebuttal, Low argued:

“by Corbett’s definition…the word sheds its meaning. Native rabbits, native goats, native toads, native trout, native camphor laurels and native prickly pear. O brave new world!” (3)

Certainly Corbett’s definition would make defining a feral species much harder, but in doing so, the health of an ecosystem would more likely be judged on whether it is biodiverse and whether each component seems assured of survival. On the other hand, Low’s definition judges an ecosystem’s health by history. Even though an ecosystem may be diverse, balanced and adaptable to change, scientists using Low's definition will kill ferals simply because history says they are ferals.

Just as cultural judgments have prevailed over scientific judgments in regards to deciding whether certain animals should be killed, they have also prevailed when deciding what it actually means to protect the environment. Should humans see themselves as part of an ecosystem, or wardens over it? Is a golf course that is home to kangaroos, frogs, and turtles as worthy of protection as a eucalypt forest that has few animals by comparison? Is the dingo a native Australian animal that needs to be respected for its place in the ecosystem, but a dingoX a feral that needs to be shot or poisoned? If a dingoX is to be killed, is it to help the dog maintain its place in the Australian ecosystem by removing less adaptive genes or is it because genetic purity is more interesting for humans? In an ecosystem that has had humans shaping it for 50,000 years, what is wilderness?

Below are various “environmental problems” that do not necessarily attract universal acceptance that they are problems and if so, lack consensus about the best response to them.

What is wilderness protection?

Many environmental policies aim to protect wilderness, which in turn necessitates a definition of what wilderness actually is. In the eyes of many environmental organisations, wilderness is an ecosystem that hasn’t been altered by "modern" humans. In the words of  Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:

"Today, for environment groups and land management agencies, wilderness is a land use classification which relates specifically to growing respect for the non-commercial, non-industrial, non-colonial values of those landscapes that have been least disturbed since 1788. Most recently, the Commonwealth Government discussion paper on wilderness protection defined a wilderness as:

"... an area that is, or can be restored to be, a sufficient size to enable the long-term protection of its natural systems and biological diversity; substantially undisturbed by colonial and modern technological society; and remote at its core from points of mechanised access and other evidence of colonial and modern technological society. " (12)

For numerous reasons, the definition seems to have been rejected by some Aborigines. One reason is that it denies them a role in shaping the ecosystem, and almost defines them as animals. A second reason is that it is used to deny contemporary Aboriginal economic engagement with the land. According to the website Creative Spirits:

“Many people, including members of political parties, believe that before invasion the Australian bush was virgin and Aboriginal people’s lifestyle carefully tried to maintain its delicate balance.
The opposite is true.
Aboriginal people have been fire-farming for more than 50,000 years. The spinifex plains of the Tanami desert in central Australia, for example, are man-made [9]. Aboriginal people burnt the land there every year and used it for hunting kangaroos and other animals.
Governments, environmentalists and many other Australians maintain a distorted view of what ‘wilderness’ is. They engage to maintain it, not realising that Aboriginal people have always changed the Australian landscape. Native title legislation has fallen victim to this belief, allowing customary but not economic rights to Aboriginal people” (13)

Richie Ahmat, chairman of the Cape York Land Council, went further and explained in more detail how environmental groups wanted Aborigines to behave:

"Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS (The Wilderness Society) has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.

If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support."

 

Is urbanisation a threat or a refuge?

Some people seem to have an ideology that the environment will always suffer from human activity. Usually, there is no elaboration about how the environment will suffer but sometimes there are vague references about a decline in biodiversity. For example, the World Wildlife Foundation states:

“Of continuing concern for Australia's is continued population growth along the coastline. The formation of massive metropolitan centres with increasing population density on Australia's coasts could displace much valuable biodiversity.” (4)

WWF's comment would be accurate in regards to inner-city Melbourne; however, a great deal of urban development increases biodiversity. For example, gardeners have a tendency to grow a vast range of plants, which in turn attract a diverse range of insects, lizards, bush rats and small marsupials like antechinus and possums. Likewise, golf courses attract kangaroos while the artificial ponds attract turtles and water rats. Finally, councils sometimes set aside green belts. Although the green belts often don't have the same biodiversity as golf courses or gardens, they can act as little reserves of native wilderness.

Perhaps the likes of WWF don’t look as these human-shaped ecosystems as an environment because they are constructed by humans and therefore not worth acknowledging. Alternatively, it may be ideologically confronting to concede that many species benefit from a kind of co-habitation with humans. This seemed to be the view of the Sydney Morning Heard science journalist Nick Galvin who saw the presence of native animals in suburbia, not as a sign that suburbia could be a nice place for animals to live, but as a sign of human mismanagement of national parks. In his words:

"However, the main reason they are moving into your backyard in greater numbers is because their traditional bushland homes are disappearing forcing them to turn to more risky habitats closer to humans." (11)

The view that anything touched by the human hand is somewhat diminished and needs to be repaired is definitely an ideology that governs some organisations. Some of the thinking can be seen in the words of Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:

"Today, for environment groups and land management agencies, wilderness is a land use classification which relates specifically to growing respect for the non-commercial, non-industrial, non-colonial values of those landscapes that have been least disturbed since 1788. Most recently, the Commonwealth Government discussion paper on wilderness protection defined a wilderness as:

"... an area that is, or can be restored to be, a sufficient size to enable the long-term protection of its natural systems and biological diversity; substantially undisturbed by colonial and modern technological society; and remote at its core from points of mechanised access and other evidence of colonial and modern technological society. " (10)

In truth, ecosystems in 1788 were as much human creations as golf courses are today. There is a degree of racism in Brown’s ideology as it puts Aborigines into a sub-human category in which they become part of the animal kingdom, not part of the human race. That racism clouds an objective scientific discussion of the human role in the ecosystem.

 

A great deal of flora and fauna has found a home in urban environments and from a scientific perspective, many urban environments have greater biodiversity than areas classified as wilderness. Even though some of that biodiversity includes exotic falora and fauna, it is part of a thriving ecosystem.

 

 

Why are native species declining in national parks?

The survival of many native Australian species is not assured. In 2010, Australia had 1750 native species on the threatened list. 59 mammals were at risk of immediate extinction and 18 mammals had gone extinct in the last 100 years. In contradiction with popular belief, the areas most disconnected from urban activities had the highest rates of extinction. For example, at the 136 sites across northern Australia that had been repeatedly surveyed since 2001, the mammal populations had dropped by an average of 75 per cent. The number of sites classified as ''empty'' of mammal activity rose from 13 per cent in 1996 to 55 per cent in 2009. (7)

The areas experiencing a decline in mammal activity included the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park. Over the last two decades, there has been a 71 percent decline in the total number of animals in the park and almost half the area of the national park no longer had any native mammals at all. It must be stressed that, within the National Park, the native animals have not been threatened by farming, have not been threatened by mining, have not been threatened by urban development and have not been threatened by human “neglect.”

Presently, debates about halting the decline of native species revolve around increasing funding for the poisoning and shooting of feral animals or rebuilding ecosystems with native predators like the dingo, devil and goanna so that the ecosystem can find a balance with itself. The later argument has been championed by Chris Johnson, from James Cook University. Johnson has found that in places where dingoes are rare or absent, and foxes and cats are abundant, 50 per cent of ground-living mammals have vanished. Where dingoes remain abundant, the rate of local disappearance is 10 per cent or less.

Tasmanian Devil

Reintroducing the Devil to the mainland is being held up as a possible solution to halt the decline in native marsupials.

Why are the ferals taking over?

Most contemporary environmental scientists approach their work with a deal of environmental xenophobia. Basically, they propose any species that was not in Australia in 1788 has no right to exist today. It is an ideological, rather than scientific, approach to environmental management. Sometimes even native animals are classed as ferals. For example, environmental scientists introduced koalas to Kangaroo Island in the 1930s because they hoped it would become a kind of ark to protect the species. Some contemporary scientists now want the koala eradicated because they don't believe it has a right to exist. In the words of David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide, there was a hierarchy of animals rights on Kangaroo Island, and the koalas' rights were close to the bottom:

"You are going to cause major problems for other species -- other species that are endemic to the island. Those things have a right, a greater right, to be here than koalas." (8)

Most scientists propose that the best way to deal with the ferals is for the government needs to allocate more money for landcare managers to shoot, poison or gas the koalas, cane toads, rabbits, rats, mice, horses, camels, pigs, dogs, cats, buffalo, deer, carp, red fin, trout, willows, etc

Although the ideological approach to the defining the feral problem is widespread, it is not universal. For example, some scientists have shown that pests like the cane toad have not caused the extinction of any native species and in some cases, have actually helped some species of frog by reducing the number of predators. In the words of Cane Toads in Oz:

"The truth is, no Australian species is known or even suspected to have gone extinct as a result of cane toads. When they first arrive in a new area, cane toads kill lots of frog-eating predators like quolls (carnivorous marsupials), goannas (varanid lizards) and snakes like death adders, red-bellied blacksnakes and king brown snakes. But over time, the Australian species adapt to deal with the toad’s presence – so if you go to places where toads have been around for many decades, most of those predator species are much more common again. They may not be as common as they were before toads arrived – we can’t tell because we don’t have any detailed information on historical numbers – but they certainly are much more common than they were a few years after the toads arrived. " (9)

Furthermore, the attempted eradication of the feral has sometimes done more harm than good. For example, where rabbit numbers are high, they constitute almost 100% of the diets of cats and foxes. When rabbit numbers rapidly plummet due to poisoning regimes, controlled burns, or scientists releasing viruses, the rabbit predators (such as cats and foxes) are most destructive. With the rapid removal of rabbits, an ecosystem finds itself with a high number of predators but very little prey. These predators switch to the bilby and other marsupials. Although the native prey are more difficult to catch than a rabbit, the high numbers of predators ensure they have little chance of survival. Ironically, as fox and cat numbers are reduced by the lack of prey, recovering rabbit populations find themselves in an ecosystem with low numbers of cats and foxes and one that their competitors have been hunted to extinction.

In fact, it could be argued that the CSIRO's myxomatosis virus has played a significant role in many small marsupials like the bilby being pushed to extinction despite not being affected by the virus itself. Basically, by eradicating rabbits in waves, it keeps temporarily removing rabbits from the ecosystem at a time that goannas, eagles, cats, quolls and foxes are eating them.

(Left. Macquarie Island before the removal of cats. Right, after the removal

Left. Macquarie Island. before the removal of cats. Right, after the removal, rabbit numbers exploded.

 

How will climate change change water availability?

The issue of climate change has been politicised, which has in turn resulted in polarised viewpoints in regards to the scale of the threat and the best solutions to prevent the dire predictions coming to fruition. Some of the predictions made by palaeontologist Tim Flannery, the former federal government’s chief climatic change adviser, proposed that Perth will become a “ghost metropolis” after the rain ends, the Great Barrier Reef will die due to bleaching, Melbourne will be submerged by rising seas, Brisbane will be flooded more regularly due to increased rain, and more rural communities will be destroyed by bushfires. In short, whatever Australians want more of, they will get less of and whatever they want less of, they will get more of.

Flannery argued that these catastrophes can be avoided if Australia supported the government's carbon tax and used the taxes to fund solar and wind energy. Critics argued that Flannery's threats were over stated, that none came to fruition in the timescale he suggested and even a complete elimination of Australia’s emissions would make no difference to global climate and would therefore not be a viable solution.

Murray Darling

Murray Darling Catchment. Some climate models predict north Australia (which wants less rain) will get more while south Australia (which wants more rain) will get less. If the models are correct, at least southern Australia can expect more inflows into the Murray-Darling, whose catchments are in the north.

 

Does the bush need to be burnt?

There is a significant amount of disagreement about whether bushfires are helpful or harmful for an ecosystem. Some scientists seem to believe that the explosion of greenery after a bushfire is a sign that the fire has infused some kind of magic mumbo jumbo that compensates for the loss of nutrients and water needed for plants to grow. For example, Allen Greer, a herpetologist from the Australian Museum, writes:

"Fires remove competing plants, open up the canopy to greater sunlight and enrich the soil with ash from the previous generation of plants. This creates ideal conditions for the growth of certain short-lived but fast-growing species, such as acacias. Further, some plants have seed capsules that only release their seeds after being singed or seeds that need to be scorched to germinate." (5)

Although it is true that ash can enrich the soil, this is only if the fire is not quickly followed by rain or strong winds which will strip ash away. Furthermore, the nutrients added to the soil by burning mulch are far far less than the nutrients added by mulch decomposing slowly. As for bushfires opening the canopy, logging does the same thing but this wouldn’t necessarily be a justification to log. (Greer was incorrect to say that seeds needed to be scorched to germinate. It is smoke that causes gemination.)

Some scientists have proposed that “cold burns” (a bushfire started by humans) are helpful. According to the cold burn theory, if humans burn the ecosystem in patches, then a “mosaic” of ecosystems will be developed that will increase overall biodiversity. Perhaps that is true but by the same logic, mosaic logging would also increase biodiversity but like mosaic burning, it does so by reducing the productive capacity of the land. As an alternative, mosaic watering or mosaic mulching would increase biodiversity but it would do so by increasing productive capacity.

Controlled small burns is also seen as a way to reduce the threat of a larger burn, which is a bit like saying logging or land clearing is the best way to reduce the threat of a bushfire because they also reduce fuel loads. In any case, uncontrolled bushfires tend to rage through the canopy of trees while the controlled burns only set the mulch and grass alight. Consequently, a bushfire will continue regardless of whether an area has previously experienced a cold burn.

 

Photos taken in 2007, four years after the 2003 ACT firestorm, an uncontrolled burn. Eucalyptus trees use weakness in the ecosystem as the opportune time to push for individual dominance. Fire has not imparted some magical energy that stimulates growth.

 

Should we believe the scientists that said willows were an asset or those who said they werea threat?

Up until the 1980s, environmental scientists encouraged farmers to plant willow trees along water courses to slow erosion. Post 1980s; however, environmental scientists started encouraging farmers to kill willow trees and replace them with native red gums. The new generation of scientists didn’t dispute that willows slowed erosion; however, they said they transpired more water, that the dense shade provided by their leaves prevented the growth of aquatic plant life and by losing their leaves only in winter, willows didn’t provide year-round riparian inputs into the river to sustain small organisms. (6)

Of course, it could also be argued that by providing dense shade cover, willows reduce evaporation and prevent the growth of poisoness blue-green algae. In addition, the moist leaves don’t build up over the years like gum leaves where they can be washed into the water caused “black water” that kills everything. The fact that the scientists only looked at the negative side perhaps indicated that they were trying to find facts to support the ideology, not change the ideology to suit the facts.

Murrumbidgee in flood but dying due to black water. Over the years, gum leaves build up but during a flood, they are washed into the water where they decompose and suck out oxygen. Native fish, yabbies, and shrimp all die. Willow trees don't pose the same threat because their leaves decompose quickly.

 

1)Reid, John (2012) Wrecking Macquarie Island to save it http://quadrant.org.au/opinion/doomed-planet/2012/09/wrecking-macquarie-island-to-save-it/

2) ELIZABETH SVOBODA February 16, 2009
The Unintended Consequences of Changing Nature’s Balance http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/science/17isla.html?_r=0

3)Low, Tim (2002) Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia's Exotic Invaders

4) World Wildlife Found Environmental problems in Australia
Issues with no end in sight http://wwf.panda.org/who_we_are/wwf_offices/australia/environmental_problems_in_australia/

5) http://www.austmus.gov.au/animals

6) Controlling Willows Along Australian Rivers: River and Riparian Land Management Technical Guideline, Land and Water Australia Authors: Lizzie Pope, Ian Rutherford, Phil Price and Siwan Lovett

7) Ben Cubby, 20 years left: mammals plunge into extinction September 2, 2010, Sydney Morning Herald http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/20-years-left-mammals-plunge-into-extinction-20100901-14nmz.html

8) SA shies away from koala cull, Australian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1081674.htm Broadcast: 05/04/2004

9) Debunking Cane Toad Myths http://www.canetoadsinoz.com/debunkingcanetoadimpactmyths.html

10)http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1992/31.html

11) Galvin, Nick July 17 2007, Magic Possumshttp://blogs.smh.com.au/science/archives/2007/07/possum_magic.html

12)http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1992/31.html

13)Aboriginal Land Care http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-land-care

 

 

 

 

Environmental Issues

Environmental problems
Defining problems; debating solutions

Sustainability
The economic versus government approach

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

Bush fire prevention
To go native or exotic?

Landscapes

Antarctica

Outback

Rainforests

Great Dividing Range

Coast